The New Coal: Pushing Plastics Worsens Climate Change

By Jerri-Lynn Scofield, who has worked as a securities lawyer and a derivatives trader. She is currently writing a book about textile artisans.

COP26 kicked off today in Glasgow, not with a bang, but with some stumbles, transportation and otherwise.

Curiously, the leader of the country hosting the summit, UK prime minister Boris Johnson was out front trying to manage expectations downward, as per the Guardian, Cop26 summit at serious risk of failure, says Boris Johnson:

The Cop26 climate summit is at serious risk of failure because countries are still not promising enough to restrict global temperature rises to below 1.5C, Boris Johnson has warned.

In a blunt admission after two days of preliminary talks at the G20 meeting of world leaders, the prime minister conceded little progress had been made – and the conference is not on track to achieve a deal that keeps the goal alive. He put the chances of success as “six out of 10”.

“Currently, let’s be in no doubt, we are not going to hit it and we have to be honest with ourselves,” he said. The commitments being made so far were a “drop in the rapidly warming ocean”.

An account in the Sydney Morning Herald, ‘Hopes unfulfilled’: G20 fails to agree on climate change goals reinforced BoJo’s pessimism.

Rome: Hopes that leaders of the world’s largest economies would provide momentum for the first days of the United Nations climate talks in Glasgow were dashed when they failed to come to agreement over deeper emissions cuts and a phase-out of coal power.

Note also that two key players won’t even be at the COP26 table. China’s Xi Jinping and Russia’s Vladimir Putin are not attending.

So much for saving the planet.

Other than pass along these tidbits precisely, the focus of this post is not to discuss the prospects for COP26.

Plastics are the New Coal

Instead, a report published earlier this month,The New Coal: Plastics and Climate Change, issued by Beyond Plastics caught my eye, offering another reason for getting serious about the world’s plastics problem: pushing plastics exacerbates climate change.

Permit me to quote at length from the press release launching the report, as I don’t think that the connection between plastics production is at all well known, let alone well understood.This report uses a known problem – coal-fired power plants -as a benchmark, and examines ten stages in creating, using, and disposing  of plastics. These include (from the Beyond Plastics website):

fracking for plastics, transporting and processing fossil fuels, gas crackers, other plastics feedstock manufacturing, polymers and additives production, exports and imports, foamed plastic insulation, “chemical recycling”, municipal waste incineration, and plastics in the water.

It also makes clear what climate campaigners are up against. The G20 failed to come to any consensus about phasing out coal, as I mentioned above. But even if that well known climate change contributor were to be addressed, immediately and effectively, climate campaigners are locked in an ongoing whack-a-mole scenario with fossil fuel interests.

From the press release summarising the Beyond Plastics report’s findings:

Plastics are on track to contribute more climate change emissions than coal plants by 2030, a new report finds. As fossil fuel companies seek to recoup falling profits, they are increasing plastics production and cancelling out greenhouse gas reductions gained from the recent closures of 65 percent of the country’s coal-fired power plants.

The New Coal: Plastics and Climate Change by Beyond Plastics at Bennington College analyzes never- before-compiled data of ten stages of plastics production, usage, and disposal and finds that the U.S. plastics industry is releasing at least 232 million tons of greenhouse gases each year, the equivalent of 116 average-sized coal-fired power plants.

And that number is growing quickly. In 2020, the plastics industry’s reported emissions increased by 10 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions over 2019. Construction is currently underway on another 12 plastics facilities, and 15 more are planned—altogether these expansions may emit more than 40 million more tons of greenhouse gases annually by 2025.

“The fossil fuel industry is losing money from its traditional markets of power generation and transportation. They are building new plastics facilities at a staggering clip so they can dump their petrochemicals into plastics. This petrochemical buildout is cancelling out other global efforts to slow climate change,” said Judith Enck, former EPA Regional Administrator and President of Beyond Plastics.

In addition to accelerating climate change, plastic pollutes water, air, soil, wildlife, and health— particularly in low-income communities and communities of color. The U.S. plastics industry reported releasing 114 million tons of greenhouse gases nationwide in 2020. Ninety percent of its reported climate change pollution occurs in just 18 communities where residents earn 28% less than the average U.S. household and are 67% more likely to be people of color. In addition to greenhouse gases, these facilities also emit massive amounts of particulates and other toxic chemicals into the air, threatening residents’ health.

What the industry reports is less than half of what it actually releases, according to the analysis by Material Research. The Maine-based firm examined data from federal agencies including the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Department of Commerce, and Department of Energy, and found a severe undercounting of plastics’ climate impacts. In addition to the 114 million tons of greenhouse gases the industry reported releasing in 2020, Material Research identified another 118 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions from other stages, the equivalent of more carbon dioxide than that of 59 average-sized coal-fired power plants.

It is important to note that the report’s estimates are conservative. “This report represents the floor, not the ceiling, of the U.S. plastics industry’s climate impact,” noted Jim Vallette, president of Material Research and the report’s author. “Federal agencies do not yet count many releases because current regulations do not require the industry to report them. For example, no agency tracks how much greenhouse gas is released when plastic trash is burned in cement kilns, nor when methane leaks from a gas processing plant, nor when fracked gas is exported from Texas to make single-use plastics in India.”

As Congress finalizes federal spending bills and the United Nations prepares to meet for COP26 in Glasgow, Scotland next month, their failure to acknowledge and act to reduce plastics’ contribution to climate change threatens to undermine global climate change mitigation efforts.

“The scale of the plastics industry’s greenhouse gas emissions is staggering, but it’s equally concerning that few people in government or in the business community are even talking about it. That must change quickly if we hope to remain within the 1.5° C global temperature increase scientists have pinpointed as critical to avoiding the most devastating impacts of climate change,” said Enck.

In addition to the full report, the details of this research are available at, including analysis of the plastics industry that has never been made available to the public.

The big takeaway from the Beyond Plastics report: plastics are the new coal.

Let’s look briefly at what’s happened when U.S. regulators have sought to address coal power-plant regulation. Well, for some of that story, see today’s cross-post, ‘The Supreme Court Could Destroy the Planet’: Review of EPA Power Triggers Alarm. The Supreme Court has agreed to hear a case that challenges whether the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has authority under the Clean Air Act to restructure the U.S energy system. I only mention the issue her as important; I refer readers  who wish to delve into details to the cross post. But if the Supreme Court rules as I fear it might, and prevents the Biden administration from addressing the old coal, absent new legislative authority, I fear the chances that regulators will be able to regulate plastics, e.g. the new coal, look dim.  (even though I am of course aware that the statutory authority for so doing would be different). But the political problem – and the opposing forces – would be similar, and would certainly avail themselves of similar strategy and tactics.

Against that pessimistic backdrop, I did spot a small cause for optimism in some news emanating from Louisiana, a state where fossil fuel issues are integral to the state’s current economy. According to the Advocate, a Baton Rouge newspaper,  Massive Louisiana plastics plant faces 2+ year delay for tougher environmental review:

A new, more stringent review of the environmental impacts of a massive proposed plastics plant along the Mississippi River in St. James Parish will likely take more than two years.

Environmental groups are cheering that scrutiny, arguing it could provide a more realistic assessment of the environmental damage the plant would do to an area they say already bears a heavy burden of pollution. But some local government and business leaders are trying to rally support for a project that could create about 1,200 permanent jobs and pour millions of dollars into the local economy.

The [Army Corps of Engineers] had already approved permits for the Sunshine Project, a $9.4 billion plastics plant that Formosa has been trying to build for three years, but it rescinded them a year ago. Environmental groups filed a lawsuit claiming the environmental study was inadequate, and the Corps acknowledged errors.

So, the good news is that this expanded review will take at least two years. Dare I hope that in the interim, a  consensus might build that we need to curtail plastics production dramatically – and then, perhaps, this plant – and others like it – won’t be built at all. Okay, maybe I’m getting way ahead of the situation here. But I can dream, can’t I?

Boris Doesn’t Believe in the Recycling Fairy

Finally, I must report that I agree with something the BBC quoted Boris Johnson as saying last week in Recycling plastics does not work, says Boris Johnson:

Answering children’s questions ahead of the COP26 climate change summit, the prime minister said reusing plastics “doesn’t begin to address the problem”.

Instead, he said, “we’ve all got to cut down our use of plastic

Now, the Recycling Association, immediately and predictably denounced the PM, saying he’d “completely lost the plastic plot”, according to the BBC. I guess I might have also come out swinging, if the PM had just upended my organisation’s raison d’être.

Other campaigners, however, admitted BoJo has a point here – a good one, for that matter. Per the BBC:

But some anti-plastic campaigners praised the prime minister’s stance and urged him to follow it up with measures to dramatically reduce plastic at source.

Sian Sutherland, co-founder of A Plastic Planet, said: “Less than 10% [of plastic] is actually recycled in the UK. Despite being touted by industry as a solution to the problem, all it has done is justify overproduction and created an industrial addiction to this indestructible, toxic material.”

Over to what Johnson said, as reported by the BBC:

…[T]he PM said it was a “mistake” to think society can recycle its way out of the problem, and added: “It doesn’t work.”

Asked later about Mr Johnson’s comments, his official spokesman said the PM continued to encourage recycling – though he said relying on it alone would be a “red herring”.
The prime minister’s words might have been careless, but they have an element of truth.

Polls consistently show many people feel they’re doing their bit to protect the climate if they gather up plastic bottles and take the car up to the recycling point on a Saturday.

But in truth, recycling is a bit of a soft option. It’s far less important than many other actions to curb emissions, such as stopping flying, or buying an electric car, or giving up meat. But these actions are harder to do.

Now, I repeat Johnson has a point – but that point only stretches so far. Recycling isn’t the answer to the world’s plastics problem. So, no matter how much we ramp up recycling efforts, they won’t magic the world’s plastic problem away.

What’s necessary is to two steps: stop producing ing so much plastics in the first instance, particularly for unnecessary throw-away packaging and shiny consumer uses, where other more sustainable materials would impose less of an environmental cost. We should reserve a tiny production of a plastics quota for certain vital purposes: medical devices, for example.

Second, is to figure out how to collect and render less harmful the plastics that have already made their way into the environment.

We can’t stop by merely agreeing with Johnson’s characteristically all-to-glib shot across the bow. Recycling isn’t the answer.

Instead, some questions we must ask ourselves. What is? And how will these policies be implemented?

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  1. John Zelnicker

    Now I understand why so many new plastics plants are being built, to absorb all the oil and gas being taken out of the ground that isn’t being used in power generation and transportation.

    Leave it in the ground for Gawdsakes.

    I agree that there is some small room for optimism. Perhaps the younger generation, which is so active right now, can take some lessons from the civil rights and anti-war movements of 50 years ago to create a truly broad-based inter-generational movement. We changed the world back then and it can be done again.

  2. Henry Moon Pie

    Your prescription:

    What’s necessary is to two steps: stop producing so much plastics in the first instance, particularly for unnecessary throw-away packaging and shiny consumer uses, where other more sustainable materials would impose less of an environmental cost. We should reserve a tiny production of a plastics quota for certain vital purposes : medical devices, for example.

    Second, is to figure out how to collect and render less harmful the plastics that have already made their way into the environment.

    is so sensible, so simple, so logical, the question is why in the world aren’t our elites focused on making that change? There’s always the profit motive, but is that all there is to it. Is their lazy inertia a factor as well?

    This behavior by people in the elites who know better is what I find so shocking. It’s the behavior of an addict coming up with excuses, promises, denials, whatever it takes to keep on using. Do we need to have an intervention with people from Congress, from the Blackrock board and executive suite, from the Ivy department chairs and deans. These are the people who are responsible for dealing with this, but instead they’re blocking action by every means available to them.

    We’re bossed around by lunatics and junkies.

    1. Jerri-Lynn Scofield Post author

      I just don’t get it. Especially as in the current world, these elites cannot protect themselves – and their families – from exposure to plastics.

      Unlike so many things, where having money really does make a difference – e.g., where you can afford to live, for example, or what kind of high quality (organic, locally-raised, etc.) food you can buy – we’re all more or less in the same boat in terms of being exposed to plastics.

      You would think if nothing else motivated elites, pure self-interest might do the trick.

      So why are we still at the phase we’re only looking to ban shopping bags and straws and enacting tiny virtue signalling measures – sorting one’s rubbish- that don’t address the scope of the problem?

      I’m afraid I don’t have any good answers.

      1. cnchal

        Is the plastic bucket under the kitchen counter or the plastic frame on a computer monitor a threat now?

        Look around and imagine all the plastic in your presence not there anymore. Look at the chip laden devices, where the chips themselves are encased in plastic, which are then encased in a plastic housing. Care to do without all that stuff?

        Or plastic bodied natural gas or coal burning Tesla good, my twenty year old steel bodied gasoline burning small car bad. Is that where we are now?

    2. drumlin woodchuckles

      Who would do the interventioning?

      Non-elite addiction behaviorists and social workers?

      How would they get past the bodyguards and private armies?

  3. clif

    General approbations to JLS for continuing focus on global plastics and trash issues, as well as trees, forest, etc. environmental subjects.

  4. Iseeyoudock

    In addition to the environmental impacts, which are substantial, there are health impacts which are occult but finally coming to the fore.

    Look back in time at pictures of people from the 40’s, 50’s and 60’s. What do you see in general? Other than the fashion and context of the photos I see a population much less obese than the one we have now.

    You can attribute obesity causality to many things, transportation infrastructure, lack of true manual labor, caloric intake and ease of access to food, sedentary lifestyles, etc. all of which have validity and probably variant proportional contribution to the obesity epidemic that we are facing.

    One thing that may also be contributory is the endocrine disrupting effects of plastics and the softeners which are used to make them.


    We’re all familiar with bisphenol-a, but there are a wide range of other chemical softeners used in making plastics pliable which have devastating endocrine disrupting effects in men, which are widely distributed, and were now learning have at least a correlation to higher mortality rates.

    I learned about this about a decade ago from a former classmate who was doing research on the issue.

    One more reason to favor glass for food storage and transport if you can find it these days.

    1. Jerri-Lynn Scofield Post author

      You raise an important point. In my post, I focused on plastics and climate change. But when one also also considers the impact on health of ubiquitous plastics (and microplastics), the case for scaling use of plastics way, way back becomes even more compelling. What are we waiting for?

      1. drumlin woodchuckles

        I know what the elites are waiting for. They are waiting for the microplastics and the nanoplastics and the endocrine disrupters to Jackpot the general population down to where they would like to see it.
        When they are satified that mostly only themselves will be left alive to benefit from solving the problem, then they will permit solving the problem.

        Is it possible for society to solve any problems as long as the elites are permitted to remain physically alive so they can prevent society from solving any problems?

  5. Samuel Conner

    A dystopian thought occurs that if oil gets too expensive, the fossil fuel giants might resort to hydrogenation and associated technologies to convert coal, which seems to still be abundant, into synthetic petroleum. Then plastic would actually be coal.

  6. Susan the other

    Let’s stop manufacturing plastic. Cold turkey. And collect and stuff all the plastic trash including in the ocean into active volcanoes. Collect the plastic in a big effort that employs the entire planet; figure a way to strategically drill or drop bombs of plastic in volcanoes where they will be melted mercilessly and spewed out in blobs of lava which can be harvested when cool for construction material. Call it the Drone Stone Age. If we had the technology volcanoes could incinerate everything from non-compostable garbage to cremations. They already spew vast amounts of toxic gas and CO2 into the atmosphere.

    1. drumlin woodchuckles

      I don’t think I will agree to cancel out plastic medical devices and sterile medical packaging. I’d be happy to see the fishing industry go back to pre-plastic fishing technologies, though.

      1. Jerri-Lynn Scofield Post author

        I’d mentioned medical devices above and I hadn’t thought about sterile medical packaging, but that’s another use of plastics worth preserving (although even for the latter, I’d like to see application of a circular concept, so that how to dispose of the packaging is built into its life cycle. And maybe there would be a way to make such packaging so that it doesn’t pose a disposal nightmare).

        But most plastics currently produced don’t fall into these necessary categories. I’d be much more ruthless about eliminating such non-essential uses.

        1. drumlin woodchuckles

          Some kinds and uses of plastic might be easier to solve than others. Plastics meant to be disposed of after one use might be the easiest. I like those thin transparent plastic bags one gets in grocery stores to put some fruits and vegetables in. I use them over and over, even though they are “intended” to be thrown out after one use. What if they were kept confined within plastic bag vending machines and it costed a dollar or two dollars or five dollars or whatever price is considered a real disincentive to disposal after one use? If the price of each plastic bag from a plastic bag vending machine were painfully high enough, really torturous, then people would re-use that same plastic bag as often as they could to avoid having to buy another.

          Approaches like that.

          Some durable plastic objects are made to last for years and be used for years. I bought a Le Berthoud brand garden sprayer over 30 years ago from Smith and Hawken ( before they got bought out and yupped-up) and I still have and still use that self-same sprayer. Perhaps the shorter a time a plastic is designed or expected to last for its use, the higher a tax should be placed on it. A 30-year plastic object could have a very low plastic tax ( plastax) put on it.
          A one-year plastic object could have a very high plastax put on it. A 1-month or 1-week plastic object could have a punitive and torturous plastax put on it.

          If the ‘green side’ wants an outright ban on many kinds of plastic objects, they will have to wage and win a mega-death casualty civil war on the ‘coaly roller’ side of the population. Does the ‘green side’ think it can win such a civil war?

  7. Hayek's Heelbiter

    The plastic waste problem has already been solved. Technologically, that is. Plasma pyrolysis.

    et al. Except on a few small islands that have plenty of waste plastic floating in their waters and exorbitant energy import costs, pyrolysis of any kind will never be implemented on any grand scale.
    Because markets, Big Oil and Big Government. No way, no how.

  8. Gc54

    Next stop: make all EV bodies out of reinforced plastic, “to save weight, everybody wins!” /sarc

  9. drumlin woodchuckles

    Here is a ‘Beau of the Fifth Column’ video which is tangentially related to this post. Tangentially in that it involves a Senator who is protective of the ‘old’ coal rather than the ‘new’ coal . . . . but is still a deeply anti-environmental survival Senator regardless as to ‘which’ coal he is paid to eagerly defend.

    One can either watch the video or not. There is no transcript. I find Beau interesting to watch and think about. If others agree, at least about this video, and if any of those others has personal contacts into the personal surroundings of the DemProg Representatives, it might be worthwhile suggesting to them that they watch this video and think about whether they might want the Representatives themselves to watch this video.

    Anyway, its just a thought . . . . as Mr. Beau himself says at the end of each video.

  10. The Rev Kev

    That is the depressing thing about the COP26 in Glasgow and this story of plastic production. The people with power who could make a change? They aren’t even trying. They seriously can’t be a***** about doing anything that will make any difference whatsoever. We have more than enough warnings with the recent fires, floods, heatwaves, etc. about climate change but it is like they think that their money will protect them from all this. By the time they discover their mistake, it will be far too late for most of us.

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